Frittering Top Chef?
Why the Vegas hype machine must turn up the heat now on its biggest culinary moment
Thu, Oct 8, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Kelsey McNeal/Bravo
Hubert Keller was on the line, enthusiastically dishing about the wonderfulness for him that has been his ride this year with the Bravo reality hit Top Chef. Keller, proprietor of Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay, was a finalist on Top Chef Masters and then appeared again a few weeks ago to help assess the output of the contestants battling it out in the regular season, which is, of course, set here in Vegas.
The results of this exposure have been dramatic for Keller, whose Fleur de Lys opened in 2002 and has generally underperformed compared with both in-house competition from Aureole, Mix and StripSteak and versus the top tier of Guy Savoy, Alex, Picasso and Robuchon.
Keller’s TV exposure, however, has prompted a fairly radical turnaround. The pudding’s proof: Fleur had greater revenues in August 2009, while open five days a week, than it did in August 2008 open seven days a week. The place was packed on my recent visit, and the place was library-dead during my two prior meals there.
But something was also missing, so I asked Keller the question I’ve wanted to ask many people as Vegas’ Top Chef moment hits its halfway point: “If so many of your guests are mentioning Top Chef when they come in, how come you don’t have a Top Chef menu?”
The generally exuberant Keller fell silent.
“Uhhh,” long pause, “good question, I guess,” he said sheepishly. “We did a Top Chef night in St. Louis, and it was an enormous success, but I guess, yeah, we still have to fix it up and use it as a tool and do some of the signature dishes that I did on the show, I guess. I guess I don’t want to bore people too much. But yeah, I guess that’s another thing that I could do.”
To which, in my mind, all I could think was: WTF? It occurred to him to do an event in St.-effing-Louis, where he has another Burger Bar and a steakhouse, but not in Las Vegas, where the show set its entire season and millions of tourists visit?
And yet it was difficult to browbeat Keller, since, bafflingly, the entire culinary scene of Las Vegas has been mishandling its most important exposure ever and the city’s most potentially game-changing pop-cultural moment since MTV’s The Real World took up residence at the Palms lo those many years ago.
This is Las Vegas, the world capital of self-promotion and hype. How is it possible that this city could be, seven episodes into the season, failing this miserably at exploiting this opportunity?
Keller’s not the only one without a Top Chef menu, either; nobody’s done one, so far as I have been able to determine.
Consider Wolfgang Puck. The season premiere involved a visit to Puck’s Cut steakhouse at Palazzo, which one contestant is heard in voice-over calling the “Pahl-a-zoe,” undoubtedly causing conniptions in the executive offices of Las Vegas Sands. Puck was such a tart and funny judge—sample zinger: “Everybody has to put purées underneath everything now. It’s like people think we need the steak, and then we need some baby food with it”—that EW.com blogger Adam Markowitz hopes he becomes a regular. Yet there will be none of winner Kevin’s arctic char and turnip salsa verde on the Cut menu anytime soon.
“I can tell you that it definitely helped to put our name out there quite a bit, especially since the feedback on Wolfgang’s guest-judge appearance was huge,” wrote Puck spokeswoman Stephanie Davis via e-mail. “Fans of the show were lobbying the Top Chef Twitter page to make Wolfgang a permanent judge. Everyone talking about his guest-judge stint definitely helped to keep Cut’s name top of mind. As for a menu, no, we are not offering a Top Chef menu.”
See the disconnect?
To some extent, I get this. As a restaurateur, perhaps you don’t want your menu dictated by whatever reality-show contestants are forced to make that week if it doesn’t fit your normal fare. It could be as discordant as, say, Jason Mraz playing a Quiet Riot tune in concert. But that’s why you create a separate menu, start using the Top Chef association in advertising or at least mention it on your website. There are no such online references to Top Chef on any of the sites associated with restaurants or resorts that have thus far appeared in the season.
The most colossal waste, however, is how M Resort is flubbing this amazing moment. The new, way-south spot hit the jackpot with its selection as the season’s home property, and, so far, it’s done absolutely, positively nothing to capitalize on that. This is a resort owned by a 35-year-old wunderkind, and it has something called a “Social Media Team,” but neither the property’s blog nor its Twitter feed has ever used the words Top Chef. (The Twitter feed, incidentally, hasn’t been updated since February, so maybe they have more problems over there than this one.)
How is it possible the M hasn’t been hosting massive Top Chef viewing parties since the first episode? I understand to some extent the awkwardness for some of the other properties that are hosting specific episodic challenges, because they may have to be cautious not to give away the fact that theirs is the site for that week’s episode.
But the M? The place is a gazillion miles from my house, and I’d be there every week. Do a thing where different prominent chefs or food writers or obnoxious alt-weekly columnists show up, give away stuff, make it fun. Instead, perplexingly, the M is doing viewing parties for … Grey’s Anatomy? I mean, fine, but then nobody’s thought to do them for the show the place, uh, hosts?
Evidently, the answer from M is to passively enjoy the attention. “We get questions every day, all day long,” M’s general manager, John Lipkowitz, told the Las Vegas Sun last week, divulging that call volume and web hits have risen significantly since the show began airing. “They’re interested in what M is, and that was part of our decision to do the show.”
See, that’s when you need to act and confirm your status as Top Chef Vegas Central. The M also needs to figure out how to make this moment extend beyond the end of the season, and I have a great idea: Create a Top Chef restaurant where the menus routinely rotate with recipes from winning dishes in the show’s history. It’s the one part of Top Chef that is so maddening for viewers, that there’s no place to go to actually taste that sumptuous food for yourselves. Where better than Vegas to create such a thing, and where better than its Vegas home, the M?
I’m strident about these points because, halfway through, it’s not too late to course-correct. These are rough times for this city’s tourist sector, and Top Chef provides an amazing gift, exposure of an upscale kind to a moneyed demographic of folks who love to travel and eat out but who still view Vegas as tacky.
As I wrote in April when we confirmed that this juggernaut was coming, this could be the start of the recovery. So, resorts and restaurants, send your PR wizards into the kitchen to whip up something right now. Do it before, as Padma says each week, Top Chef packs its knives and goes.
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